Billy Corgan, wrestling and the rock connection

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This week, many people on my Twitter feed have been talking about Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan taking up a job in wrestling. He’s working in a role with TNA Wrestling in their creative department, being one of the people backstage who decide on storylines and character development for the wrestlers.

I apologise if the last sentence is like discovering Santa doesn’t exist, because wrestling is, shall we say, pre-determined. It is not ‘fake’ – don’t ever say that to a wrestler – as it still requires athletic endeavour and hurts a lot, but the results are as rigged as a dictator’s election. That means that you need creative minds to work backstage and create an interesting product, and it helps if you know what wrestling fans are into.

It also helps that wrestling fans are, in the main, often into metal. If Billy can entertain millions of music fans for the past couple of decades, then he’ll have a leg up in knowing what the wrestling demographic wants. I speak with some experience – although not in music. I was briefly in a punk band at university and we sucked. We once got booed off for doing a 200mph cover version of Abba’s Dancing Queen. I’m one of the owners of PROGRESS Wrestling in London. We deliberately have our shows at the Electric Ballroom in Camden as I’ve watched a ton of bands there in the past, and if you look out into our crowd, you can see about 700 people who could as easily be at a Metallica gig as at one of our shows; it’s all black t-shirts and tattoos.

PROGRESS Wrestling at London’s Electric Ballroom and right, Jim Smallman Photos: Rob Brazier

Metal and wrestling do go hand in hand. This year, following on from our appearance at Sonisphere last year, PROGRESS will be at Download. It just fits. It’s not hard to get the crowd there to chant along in support of one guy, or boo their lungs out and scream abuse at the baddies. Even better, you could have a 10-man tag match and there would still about as much spandex on show as during a Steel Panther set. Last year, one of our guys got booed purely because he came out to music that wasn’t metal, whilst another lad – Rampage Brown – got a massive reaction from people who didn’t necessarily know him as he entered the arena to Hatebreed.

Billy’s involvement with TNA isn’t his first foray into wrestling, either. He founded his own company – Revolution Pro – in 2011, and way back in the late ‘90s he appeared at an Extreme Championship Wrestling show brandishing an acoustic guitar as a weapon. If you’re chanting ‘ECW’ right now, then I salute you. If you’re also wondering why it was an acoustic guitar rather than electric, that’s because one of these things explodes on impact and looks impressive. An electric guitar would kill someone.

There’s a fine tradition of metal stars finding their way onto wrestling shows since the original MTV-inspired “rock and wrestling” generation of the mid-‘80s. From Ozzy Osbourne accompanying the British Bulldogs to the ring at Wrestlemania 2, to Alice Cooper seconding Jake ‘The Snake’ Roberts the following year; all the way up to the so-called ‘attitude era’ and live appearances from Limp Bizkit and Motörhead, the WWE has always know how to use the music that its fans enjoy to help their product grow.

In the late ‘90s, they even had a heavy metal themed tag-team called The Headbangers – Thrasher and Mosh – who were given the gimmick around the time that the Marilyn Manson was at his most notorious. What better way to push the buttons of older, stuffier fans and give the teenagers something to cheer? The fact that they wore skirts and face paint and were a broad caricature of metal fans didn’t matter. I was just delighted to see someone on TV wearing the same Slayer t-shirt as me.

Sometimes these tactics can backfire though. WWE’s rival in the ‘90s was WCW, and they bought the rights to Gene Simmons’ Kiss Demon costume, giving it to a undercard wrestler to make his own. They expected him to be the next big thing, what happened was everyone saw him and went, “Why is that dude wearing fancy dress?” At least he was made up as Gene Simmons and not Peter Criss.

Even worse are gimmicks given to wrestlers where they are meant to be bonafide rock stars like Van Hammer and Man Mountain Rock. You’re saying ‘who?’ for a very good reason. As a rule, if a grappler walks down to the ring wielding a guitar but never plays it then your average self-respecting metal fan isn’t going to look at him and think “one of us”. They’re going to think “that’s a waste of a guitar”.

If you look at the rise of wrestling through the years, since the launch of MTV it has coincided with certain peak periods in the rock world. As glam metal was a big deal in in the mid ‘80s, it fit in with the spandex and big hair period in the WWE. In the late ‘90s, the more adult-orientated feel of wrestling was perfectly accompanied by nu-metal, explaining why The Undertaker abandoned his long time gimmick of being a walking advert for embalming fluid, for one of riding a Harley and entering the ring to the sounds of Kid Rock.

Metal will always be important to wrestling, from the often amazing theme tunes (HHH favours Motörhead to this day) to the hype video packages that companies put together. Watching guys go through tables in slo-mo just wouldn’t work to a Taylor Swift song. Although these days, the WWE has stopped soundtracking one in every three videos to My Sacrifice by Creed.

Now if only Billy Corgan could encourage a wrestler to enter the ring to something by Lawnmower Deth. Hey, I can dream…

Jim Smallman is a stand-up comedian and wrestling promoter. He’ll be at Download in June hosting PROGRESS Wrestling every night from midnight. He’ll also be at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August with his show, My Girls.

For more info on PROGRESS Wrestling, click here.